Little fish in a big picture: Fixing ecosystems one species at a time

Ed Williams lugged a giant plastic bag teaming with silvery blue fish down a creek bank in Waynesville where they would soon test the waters of their new home.

Earlier that day, the fish were scooped out of Jonathan Creek and hauled across the county in coolers to this spot on Richland Creek. The Tuckasegee darters didn’t need much coaxing once Williams untied the bag. In a flash of tiny fins, the 200 darters were deployed on their mission to once again repopulate Richland Creek.

The Tuckasegee darters are one of eight lost species that were killed off in Richland Creek decades ago due to industrial pollution. The water is much cleaner now, but the fish need a helping hand to reclaim their old territory. The dam at Lake Junaluska stands in the way of natural migration, thus Williams and a team of biologists from various environmental agencies are reintroducing the species by hand.

SEE ALSO: From classroom to creekside, students study water quality by raising and releasing fish

“All the species need to be present and work together to be a healthy ecosystem,” said Williams, a water quality advocate with the N.C. Division of Water Quality.

Williams is one year in to the three-year effort. By the end of the project, he hopes Richland Creek will be taken off the state’s list of “impaired waters.”

Richland Creek had two strikes against it when it landed on the state’s list of “impaired waters.”

The first was a lack of biological integrity, meaning all the species that are supposed to live there don’t. The reintroduction aimed at reversing the problem seems to be working so far. Species released into the creek last spring and fall have survived, based on a recent survey by Williams and his team.

“They all looked happy and healthy, so they seem to like their new home,” Williams said.

The real test is to come, however.

“In the fall, if we find some small ones, we will know they are reproducing,” Williams said.

The second strike against Richland Creek was contamination from leaking sewer lines and septic tanks, resulting in high levels of fecal coliform. Williams has led an effort to fix this as well, working alongside town sewer crews to patch leaks and identify culprits.

The goal is noble. It’s rare for a creek to find its way off the list of impaired waters, especially when it means tackling both pollution and a dearth of species. Time will tell if the efforts pay off.

To read a story on the effort to clean up fecal coliform in Richland Creek, go to

For more information on the project, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The Naturalist's Corner

  • Fingers still crossed
    Fingers still crossed Status of the Lake Junaluska eagles remains a mystery, but I still have my fingers crossed for a successful nesting venture. There was some disturbance near the nest a week or so ago — tree trimming on adjacent property — and for a day or…

Back Then with George Ellison

  • The woodcock — secretive, rotund and acrobatic
    The woodcock — secretive, rotund and acrobatic While walking stream banks or low-lying wetlands, you have perhaps had the memorable experience of flushing a woodcock — that secretive, rotund, popeyed, little bird with an exceedingly long down-pointing bill that explodes from underfoot and zigzags away on whistling wings and just barely managing…
Go to top